I ran the Chicago marathon yesterday. Long story short, I ran my best marathon ever. It was my fifth, and the second time I had done Chicago, five years ago. After having two babies in the last four years, I was itching to run Chicago again. My PR of 4:54 was set in St Louis after that, and it was time to bust that.
Everything leading up to race day was going great - the most training mileage I've ever done, no injuries, and a great husband who supported me by watching the kids every Saturday morning so I could do my long runs. Thank you, hubby!
My race day goal was 4:40 -- not fast by many standards, but would have been a very good time for me. I figured if I did 4:45 it would be good. But my main goals were to not start off too fast and not blow up at the end. (Um, I did both but it was OK. More on that later.)
Race day was perfect running conditions -- temps in the low 40s that went up to about 50 by midday. I began with two like-paced friends and the first 8-9 miles just rolled by. The Chicago marathon is an experience -- it's crowded, but it's fun. The crowds are never-ending, especially on the first half of the course. Bands play, music is blasted and people are just happy to be out there cheering runners.
I saw my friend Jessica just after mile 7 and practically tackled her, hugging her. And I heard later that I made her little son, who was being held by his dad, cry, because I startled him. Oops, sorry! I saw a work colleague shortly after that and then looked for my family. Unfortunately, I twice missed my husband and kids. I felt really bad, but I was moving a bit faster than I thought I would. I worried about my kids being cold -- it was still quite chilly and overcast at that point.
Speaking of starting off too fast, I knew I started off too fast and worried I would pay for it later. My friends were just feeling good and running a bit faster. In my head, I kept thinking, pull off, run your own race, you're going to crash at the end if you keep this up -- but on the other hand I thought, heck, trust the training, as my former editor Dan always says, and trust that I would have the endurance from training to get through.
At mile 9, my left leg was getting tight, particularly my hamstring. I was doing a mini-freakout in my head. What the heck?? I told my friend Tonya that I was going to stretch and to go on without me. I needed to stretch and recalibrate my pace, and I knew I would be OK running solo for awhile because our friends Andie and Lori, at mile 20 and one of them would run with me.
My achy but otherwise OK hamstring didn't get any worse through the next several miles, thank goodness. I hit the half marathon point at 2:18, which was a good time for me. I thought, if I could just keep up what I was doing I would be OK. And there was plenty of distractions along the way that I tried like heck to focus on so I would stop obsessing about my hamstring -- the signs people held up were entertaining, like "you trained longer than Kim Kardashian's marriage lasted" and "if you were Paul Ryan, you would be done with this marathon by now." Alas, no Kip Litton jokes on any signs anywhere. A lot of signs making jokes about runners pooping themselves, which was kind of weird. There is nothing funny about pooping yourself.
By mile 19 I was struggling and eager for the support of a friend. I was running through the Pilsen neighborhood, which is so fun and festive, with families lining the streets and music blasting. Some woman running in front of me was dancing and waving her arms. I couldn't imagine expending one teeny tiny extra bit of energy at that point and didn't share the enthusiasm. Everytime I wriggled my arms and shoulders to try and unclench them I got little shooting nerve sensations near my wrists. I did high-five a few little kids -- they were just too cute to not high-five. But oh man, I was tired, OK, but tired. My hamstring had stopped being as much an issue because my legs were starting to feel fatigued and really heavy. I kept thinking, OK, only 8 miles to go, only 7 miles to go, I could do this...
Milepost 20 came and went, and I looked for my friends at the end of the water stop. By this time I got the "vice grip" feeling I get sometimes when I race really hard, where I feel like a corset is tied tightly around my mid-section. I can breathe and everything, it just feels like everything surrounding my core is clenching. I did not see my blonde pony-tailed friends. I felt silly, but man was I bummed. How did I miss them? Then I remembered Tonya who was running ahead. Maybe she and the other friend who was going to run with us decided to run with her. I was OK with that -- I figured I was getting crabby enough that maybe it was best that I was solo.
But, aha! Around mile 21 Andie and Lori's husband spotted me! I was so happy I could have cried if I had the energy. Andie jumped in with me immediately. I suddenly found it exhausting to talk. I told her my "ground rules" (nice, I know, but I knew she would understand, as she's done many marathons and a half Ironman) -- she could talk but I probably wouldn't talk back. She told me some good stories -- she always has good stories. We ran through Chinatown and I got elbowed by a guy who seemed annoyed I ran too close to him. I was so tired I didn't even complain or apologize. I was on my hamster wheel and wasn't getting off.
The remaining four miles did not get better -- they were awful. I was nauseous. Every water stop I stopped and walked a bit and did not want to run again. But I reminded myself of the marathons I had blown by walking and thought, I have the training to get through this. And like childbirth, this run will NOT last forever. Eventually, the baby is born, and the marathon is finished. So I kept telling myself. And debating which sucked worse, epidural-less childbirth or marathons. (Definitely the former, but that was no comfort during those last few miles)
My race had become the death marches of races. My breathing was ragged. My quads were shot. I had weird aches all over, from my upper back to my feet. The sun had been out for several miles at that point, and I alternated mopping sweat off my face and shivering when a cool breeze hit me. Around mile 25 my friend dropped off, after asking me if she wanted me to meet her after the race (I wisely told her yes). (Two years ago I had run the last few miles with her, since she was doing the whole marathon, and I got escorted off the course and she didn't wish to repeat that scene -- we even saw the guy who threw me off the course! He apparently makes a habit of this volunteer work every year).
I continued on, slogging through cheering crowds -- people were really amazing and I wanted to enjoy it, but all I could think was "don't quit. don't quit. don't quit" even though I wanted nothing more than to quit. I felt like parts of me were quitting despite my resolve to power through. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I wondered if my legs would collapse under me, they felt so wonky.
Finally, the final little "hill" before the mile 26 point and the finish line 0.2 miles later -- I thought screw this and attempted to run as fast as I could, but it was like trying to floor an old four-cyclinder car -- a feeble pick-up of power. But I did know I was going to PR. One of my thoughts as I neared the finish line was well, at least I wasn't a creampuff or a quitter.
I crossed the finish line with a time of 4:46 and change, beating my old personal record by 8 minutes. I didn't even get goose bumps or get misty-eyed like I usually do. I was just wiped.
I kept walking -- Chicago's finish line area goes on forever and is mobbed -- and got to where volunteers were handing out medals. A super nice lady with a grandmotherly sense about her smiled at me and told me congratulations, honey, and I started crying kind of hard as she put the medal around my neck. Suddenly I just wanted a big giant hug and someone to pick me up so I didn't have to walk anymore. Even the space blanket wrapped around me could not keep my teeth from chattering, I was getting so cold walking. My pelvis and hips ached. My legs hurt. I wanted to be home, warm and dry. I suddenly felt small and lonely, and very humbled and human.
But I continued to the meeting area, which thankfully was sponsored by my running group and was inside a local hotel. As I sort of staggered in there was Andie, smiling and holding my bag of gear. What a great sight, I was so grateful.
I put on as many clothes as I had in that bag to try and warm up. I tried to stretch my legs but my muscles started cramping hard. She ran and got me water and a muscle recovery drink of some kind. She offered to split a cab and I said sure. But we couldn't get one so we hopped the train, which was filled with runners, every one of them who were a million times more cheerful than me. I kept thinking, what is wrong with me? I should be feeling all victorious and instead, I just wanted to lie down.
Andie and I got off the train up north and she graciously drove me the rest of the way home. I walked into my house and, my face still crusted with salt and my body still in disgusting, smelly clothes, I gave my family brief hellos and laid down on my bed, no shower, no post-race meal, and fell sleep hard. Two hours later my husband woke me and it took me a minute to remember that I had done a marathon. The salt felt like someone had rubbed sand on my face, kind of like a crunchy mask.
As I drank water and juice and snacked a little, it started to make more sense -- because of the cool day I drank less than normal and I think I got more dehydrated than I normally do. TMI alert, but I didn't pee for 11 hours. Oops.
But I did better than I thought -- the physical training got me through the most savage part of the race. The mental stuff that has been my undoing in past marathons didn't stop me this time because I stubbornly didn't want to let it. So I started off too fast and I paid for it in the end. At least I really raced and hung on. It was a good race. It was my best marathon. I'm feeling great about that right now. At least, mentally... ow ow ow.